Jen Vejvoda ( left ) and Stacey Walton. Photo by Ross Forman
Jen Vejvoda met Stacey Walton through softball. They first were just friends. Then, they became teammates. On Aug. 22 in Hawaii, they will be married.
'I've just made a lot of friends through softball, and even a wife,' said Vejvoda, 30, a manager for Federal Express. 'At first, I thought [ the league ] was going to be more about softball and the competitiveness, but I've made so many friends through the softball league.'
The Chicago Metropolitan Sports Association's ( CMSA's ) women's softball league is the largest in the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance ( NAGAAA ) , which oversees LGBT softball and runs the annual Gay Softball World Series, held Oct. 1-6 this year in Phoenix.
There are 46 local teams this season, up from 43 last year. There are about 700 players, with 10 teams in the top-tiered A Division, 12 in B, 16 in C and 8 in D.
'I'm a competitive person and have been playing since I was a little kid. Sure, we all want to win, but you really want to have fun,' said Vejvoda, who plays for the A Division's Fusion team and laughs that she's never previously been teammates with anyone she's also been dating.
The CMSA Women's' League is about 95 percent lesbian, said commissioner Nancy MacKenzie, 46.
'For the lesbians, softball is better than the beach,' MacKenzie said on a game-day in early July as the temperature rose about 90 degrees, plus humidity.
'The appeal of our league is, we have a great location by the lake, so, it's kind of this women's fest every weekend,' she said. 'People tend to hang out all day.'
They barbecue. They bring families and their dogs. They smile; they laugh; they tell stories.
'There are some teams that I would categorize as social teams that just happen to play softball, but then there are some teams that definitely are out here for the softball much more than the social aspect,' said MacKenzie, who no longer plays after 12 ankle surgeries.
'We serve a function for the women's community,' she added. 'As an older lesbian, I remember the days when it was hugely important to have that space, but as we're more accepted in society, it's not as important; [ however, ] it's still very important to the women to be able to come out here and play and socialize.'
And several players annually come out as lesbian, MacKenzie said. 'It helps to have this huge social support system with your team and other teams.'
Players range from ages 18 to 67, and they span the ethnicity spectrum.
'These are my people. … What could be better?!' said Lisa Vanderkooi, 36, a cardiac technician who lives in Hoffman Estates. 'I'm along the lakefront with the ladies, families, dogs … and a softball game broke out.
'As much as we fight and bicker, and battle on the field, we're all still pals off the field.'
MacKenzie said the league could be expanded to 48 in the future.
The women, unlike the predominantly-male Open League, do not play Sunday double-headers, just single games.
'A lot of the women in the D Division aren't really up on the rules and really just come out to have fun. Some in the A Division, on the other hand, played college softball, though that's a tough transition from fast-pitch to slow-pitch, so sometimes they struggle with their timing.'
MacKenzie said the league this season features younger women than in the past.
'The camaraderie is fabulous and our league continues to get bigger while other leagues around the country are dying,' MacKenzie said.
CMSA will be sending four women's teams to the NAGAA Softball World
Series in October in Phoenix.